It is generally agreed that the town was named after the river, which was known until recently as the Galway River rather than the Corrib. The Irish name for river is ‘Gaillimh’, but the precise meaning of this is disputed. One version has it that Gaillimh was the name of the daughter of an Iron-age chieftain who was drowned in the river. Recent finds of stone implements suggest that there has been human habitation at the site since neolithic (New Stone Age) times. A dun (or fort) was built at some time, and there was probably a settlement of fishermen at what is known as The Claddagh from early times. The Vikings visited the area in 927A.D. and ravaged the local monasteries, but, curiously, failed to found a town as they did in other places. This is odd, given that the river and lake gave access by water well into Connaucht.
The O’Connors built a dun with wooden fortifications near the mouth of the river in 1124. In 1132 O’Brien (King of Munster) sent a force which destroyed it. This kind of warfare between the clans was a feature of Irish life since early times.
It is recorded that in 1154 ships sailed from beside the dun, which had been rebuilt. This establishes Galway as a port for the first time.
The Anglo-Normans under Richard de Burgo invaded Connacht and captured the dun in 1235 from the O’Flahertys, and established a castle there. Despite frequent attacks by the dispossessed O’Flahertys, De Burgo held firm.
1270: Richard de Burgo started to build the wall, turning Galway into a walled town protected by a castle. Eventually approximately 25 acres were enclosed.
1312: extra walls were constructed as Galway town became progressively more isolated from the Anglo-Norman settlements due to the revival of native Irish power. 1320: the church of St. Nicholas of Myra was erected as parish church for the town. (The Franciscans had a friary outside the town since 1296.)
A series of charters were granted to Galway on petition by Richard II (1361-1400) and Henry IV (1367-1413). The walls were extended and improved, and coins were minted.
By 1450 the well-known town houses began to appear, as the famous 14 Families (incorrectly known as the ’14 Tribes’), began to establish themselves at the top of civic life. Later, a charter from Richard III (1452-1485) emancipated Galway from the control of the descendants of the de Burgos, who had more or less gone native. This charter allowed the election of a mayor and two bailiffs. This effectively gave Galway considerable self-government.
The town’s church, St. Nicholas of Myra, was governed by the diocese of Tuam. The city notables disliked this, and contrived to have the Pope Innocent VIII (reign 1484-1492) issue a Bull (Papal declaration) that the church in Galway would be free of diocesan control and instead would be ruled by a Warden assisted by eight vicars. The Warden was to be elected by the 14 families, and continued under the reformed church until 1840. Thus by 1484 Galway had both civil and ecclesiastical independence, and its remote location guaranteed it the status of a city state.
Most medieval cities, whose buildings were constructed of wood and thatch, had a Great Fire. Galway had two, in 1473 and 1500, and as a result the city was rebuilt in stone.
For the next hundred years Galway traded extensively with the continent, especially Spain, exporting local produce such as fish, wool and leather, and importing fruit, oil and most importantly wine. Under the rule of a series of Mayors drawn from the 14 families, the city became extremely wealthy and prospered, as a city hospital (St. Brigid’s) was built, and Elizabeth I (1533-1603) granted a charter for a town gaol in 1578, and a garrison was set to defend the town.
1588: The year of the Spanish Armada. Two hundred Spaniards who came ashore after a shipwreck in Galway Bay were butchered by order of the Lord Deputy.
1599: Red Hugh O’Donnell, engaged in a lengthy war with the Queen, passed by and burned a convent, but Galway itself was unharmed. By 1602 the town was fully fortified, and a patent for a fair was granted in 1613.
The famous Free School had been established in 1580, and had prospered to such a degree (despite being temporarily suppressed by James I (1566-1625)) that the enrolment is said to have reached 10,000, and the numbers of scholars attending became a nuisance to the town, so that in 1627 it was ordered that all foreigners and beggars were to be whipped out of the town. Sadly, this great educational establishment closed in 1652 as part of the general post-Cromwellian decline.
The success of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) in his struggle with the King was bad news for Galway. In 1651 Sir Charles Coote invested the town by land and sea, and in 1652 starvation forced a surrender on apparently favourable terms which were not adhered to. All Catholics were expelled from the town, and the great town houses of the 14 families were confiscated and given to soldiers of the occupying forces in lieu of pay. They quickly fell into ruin as the prosperity of the town declined.
After the Restoration, Galway looked to recover its former position of wealth, but the War of William and James brought this recovery to an end. Under the Penal Laws, which at first were rigorously enforced, Catholics suffered severe disabilities in relation to education, ownership of property and civil rights. After about 1750 religious tolerance returned as the inhabitants returned to their primary concern of making money through trade and industry, which had been Galway’s great preoccupation since the Middle Ages. This time the new growth in prosperity was water-based, as the river’s force was harnessed to power a number of mills, breweries and distilleries. At the same time most of the inhabitants lived in squalor and filth.
This short-lived period of recovery lasted until the Great Famine 1846 – 1848. There have been several famines in Irish history, but this famine was nationwide and exceeded them all in severity and duration. The pre-famine population of Ireland is estimated to have been in the region of 8 million. By 1850 this number was reduced to less than 6 million, and this decline continued throughout the rest of the century as people emigrated in droves principally to England, Scotland, North America, Australia and New Zealand. During the famine years, great numbers of poor people flocked to Galway port to travel to the United States. There were however some signs of better times. Queen’s College Galway opened in 1849, and the first railway connection to Galway opened in 1851. However the town remained in general decline, and the population reached an all-time low of 13000 in 1911.
In the 20th century Galway staged a slow recovery; Salthill, once a distant and small resort became a suburb as the town began to spread and economic recovery speeded up, greatly helped by the presence of tourists in summer and college students in winter. One casualty of progress was the old Claddagh Village. The Claddagh, a tightly-knit fishing community that kept itself aloof from the rest of the town had survived all the ups and downs of history with its own culture and customs largely intact, a maze of small thatched cabins clustered behind the Dominican church. In 1934 Galway Corporation took an interest on grounds of health and hygiene; the little houses were demolished, the streets were tarred (in place of the traditional cobbles) and local-authority houses were built to house the inhabitants. At a stroke, hundreds of years of local history and autonomy were wiped out of existence. Today the Claddagh is just another suburb, a historically uninteresting cluster of streets, and no trace of its colourful past remain.
Galway Today: Today Galway is reputed to be the fastest growing city in Europe. Prosperity has returned with a vengeance. During the summer months traffic congestion is virtually unbearable in the city; there is a week-long festival race-meeting at the end of July that attracts thousands to the suburb of Ballybrit, where vast sums are wagered over six days racing. A variety of other festivals keep the city busy all through the summer, as Galway has gone back to its historic pre-occupation with trade, commerce and the making of money.
The 14 Tribes of Galway: All were originally Anglo-Norman who came to positions of authority after c.1450. The most prominent family was Lynch, who provided 84 mayors to the city, and whose town house still stands in Shop Street. Sadly, it was ‘renovated’ in the sixties by its present owners, the Allied Irish Bank, whose principal interest was in efficient and profitable banking rather than conservation, and so only the shell of the building is intact. These town houses were known as ‘castles’, and the bank is still known as Lynch’s Castle. The other families were (in alphabetical order): Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, D’arcy, Deane, Ffont, Ffrench, Joyce, Martin, Morris and Skerritt. Many of these names came to prominence later in the history of the county.
The Claddagh: ‘Cladach’ means a stony foreshore, and a settlement of fishermen seems to have existed here since the earliest times. The city walls never enclosed the Claddagh, which retained its own customs, a large degree of self-government and its own ‘King’.